What To Do About Planet Palm

Production of palm for oil is a problem, to say the least. What can we do? The publisher describes this forthcoming book as being in the tradition of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Bill McKibben interviews the author (scroll to the second section in his weekly newsletter, after the note on energy use in the cannabis industry):

About half of all products on grocery shelves contain palm oil, and production has doubled in the past decade. The James Beard Award-winning food journalist Jocelyn Zuckerman has travelled from Indonesia and Malaysia to Brazil and India looking at the vast plantations where the oil palms are grown. Her forthcoming book, “Planet Palm,” is a compelling look at just how much trouble it’s possible to cause with a single plant. (Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.) Continue reading

Post-Harvest Coffee Processing

Processing coffee after harvest refers to getting the beans out of the cherry, with fruity pulp removed. How that happens, and what follows, is partly a function of tradition, which is itself a function of geography.

In Costa Rica, due to the abundance of water, the tradition historically was to wash the beans. Since I am in Costa Rica I will give a simple illustration of this process using a small quantity of beans. These are from a handful of trees as mentioned in yesterday’s post.

In the photo above, where the coffee is in a round sink basin, you can see some beans in the middle that have been removed from the cherries. You can also see a couple green beans, which get sorted out. The goal of the “washed” method of processing coffee post-harvest is to get all the beans out of all the cherries, with as much residual pulp removed as possible. Water makes this process easier. The skins and other residual material does not historically have much, if any, value. In recent years farms are taking greater care to compost this material and use the result to fertilize the soil where the coffee grows.

The wet weight of the washed coffee is irrelevant, but for comparison purposes I will note it here and then weigh the coffee again once dried. Although many coffee processing mills dry coffee on large patios with direct exposure to the sun, there is some belief that drying without direct exposure to the sun conveys some advantages to the final taste of the coffee. So, that is what we will do with this coffee. When it is fully dried, I will post again to explain the differences in the coffees process this way, and those processed the other most common way.

From Farm To Yard And Back Again

 

It is time to harvest these cherries from the several coffee trees that held their ground for more than two decades since this land was converted from farm to yard. In our conversion of yard to farm, these ripe cherries will provide the seeds for replanting the land after processing them in the simplest manner. Tomorrow I will show that process.

Ancestral Plants Worth Saving

These sunflowers in San Diego National Wildlife Refuge are wild relatives of sunflowers that farmers around the world grow to produce oil. Lisa Cox/USFWS

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this summary of a recent scientific study:

Distant Cousins Of Food Crops Deserve Respect And Protection

Hundreds of native North American plants, often dismissed as weeds, deserve a lot more respect, according to a new study. These plants, distant cousins of foods like cranberries and pumpkins, actually represent a botanical treasure now facing increased threat from climate change, habitat loss and invasive species.

The crops that the human race now depends on, including grains like wheat and tree fruit like peaches, originally were selected or bred from plants that grew wild hundreds or thousands of years ago. And those ancestral plants, like the small wild sunflowers that can be found across the United States, still exist. “If you see them growing along roadsides, those are the ancestors,” says Colin Khoury, a research scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. Continue reading

Regeneration, Cecropia & Sugarcane

Yesterday, while working on the land we are preparing to plant coffee a few months from now, I noticed that the cecropia trees suddenly have abundant fruit.  I knew that sloths love these trees, but while looking for more information to understand this fruit I learned that bats and birds and other animals also appreciate them for food and nesting material; plus, the leaves and roots of the trees have many uses among indigenous communities in the American tropics.

Most of my work recently, now that the poro saplings are planted, is removing unwanted grasses to make way for wanted grasses that help retain soil. One of the grasses planted this year, sugarcane, also surprised me. This plant above, now about one year old, suddenly shot up an extra five feet without my noticing, until yesterday. And the furry, flowery top of the stalks, now visible nearly 20 feet above ground, presumably mean something I will need to read up on. This first stand of sugarcane, which is at the highest point of the land on this property, provided us offspring that we planted along the lowest portion of land, neighboring bananas and plantains that will shade one section of coffee saplings.

Ending Perverse Subsidies

The wealthiest landowners – those receiving payments over £150,000 a year – will face the sharpest cuts. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

We post so much about farming on this platform that it could be considered a major topic of interest. Subsidies, less so, but just as with farming there are both better and worse forms of subsidies. We favor reforming the perverse ones, and so cheer this news:

Environment to benefit from ‘biggest farming shake-up in 50 years’

£1.6bn subsidies for owning land in England to end, with funds going to improve nature

Wildlife, nature and the climate will benefit from the biggest shake-up in farming policy in England for 50 years, according to government plans.

The £1.6bn subsidy farmers receive every year for simply owning land will be phased out by 2028, with the funds used instead to pay them to restore wild habitats, create new woodlands, boost soils and cut pesticide use.

The wealthiest landowners – those receiving annual payments over £150,000 a year – will face the sharpest cuts, starting with 25% in 2021. Those receiving under £30,000 will see a 5% cut next year. Continue reading

Farming A Healthier Diet

Our thanks to Brent Loken for summarizing some the possibilities of better farming for a healthier diet:

About 10,000 years ago, humans began to farm. This agricultural revolution was a turning point in our history and enabled the existence of civilization. Today, nearly 40 percent of our planet is farmland. Spread all over the world, these lands are the pieces to a global puzzle we’re all facing: in the future, how can we feed every member of a growing population a healthy diet?

Understanding The Life Of Our Groceries

We apparently do not look as closely as we should when we go to the supermarket. One paragraph from this book review should be enough to know whether you want a closer look:

…Author Benjamin Lorr spent five years looking into that as he studied all aspects of American supermarkets — from the suppliers, the distributors, and supply routes, to the workers in the retail outlets themselves. In the reporting for his new book The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket, Lorr met with farmers and field workers and spent 120-hours-straight driving the highways with a trucker as she made her multistate rounds. He worked the fish counter at a Whole Foods market for a few months, and went to trade shows to learn about entrepreneurs who were trying to break into the industry. He also traveled to Asia to learn about commodity fishing – finding human rights violations along his journey…

Antitrust considerations might be of interest if you plan to purchase The Secret Life of Groceries.

Biochar & Regeneration During The Dry Season

This is not the first time I am hearing of it, but this concept is counterintuitive to me because it involves combustion, which I associate with carbon emissions. On our hillside we are working to regenerate quality soil on what once was a fertile, productive coffee farm. When the sun rises over what we planted this year to help prepare the soil for next year’s coffee planting, I have been considering what we need to do differently during the dry season. October is the last month of rainy season, so we are almost there. It is clear that we need all the good ideas we can find in this effort. This seems worthy of consideration:

Loading soil with biochar allows farmers to cut way back on irrigation

At high applications levels, researchers found that biochar can not only soak up a lot of carbon, but also reduce the need for irrigation by almost 40%.

Biochar – the charcoal product used to enrich agricultural soil and trap carbon—may have a hidden commercial benefit for farmers: it could lock moisture in the soil and save on gallons of costly irrigation.

The coarse, black material, made by combusting wood, grass, and other organic materials under low-oxygen conditions, helps to sequester carbon in the soil. Continue reading

Feedlot Paradigm Progress

A dust cloud over the Bovina Cattle Company’s feed yard near Bovina, Texas.

As we all hopefully make progress on our reduction of meat consumption, Henry Fountain and George Steinmetz (photographs and video) add to our understanding of how cattle are raised now, and what could change to reduce the carbon footprint:

Belching Cows and Endless Feedlots: Fixing Cattle’s Climate Issues

The United States is home to 95 million cattle, and changing what they eat could have a significant effect on emissions of greenhouse gases like methane that are warming the world.

HAPPY, Texas — Randy Shields looked out at a sea of cattle at the sprawling Wrangler Feedyard — 46,000 animals milling about in the dry Panhandle air as a feed truck swept by on its way to their pens. Continue reading

Coffee Rust Never Sleeps

It is not that we avoid this topic. Over the years we have posted plenty of times on it. It is complex, with no clear solution in view so we have avoided the most depressing stories on the topic, of which there are plenty. The topic matters very much to our current livelihood, so we are constantly on the lookout for stories that illuminate with science, touch with humanity, and/or frighten with clarity. We share one today that does all three. We have featured the work of Maryn McKenna just once before, and now is as good a time as any to do so again. Guatemala is in our neighborhood and the story she tells could have as easily been here in Costa Rica. We thank the Atlantic for publishing it:

Coffee Rust Is Going to Ruin Your Morning

Coffee plants were supposed to be safe on this side of the Atlantic. But the fungus found them.

In the southern corner of Guatemala, outside the tiny mountain town of San Pedro Yepocapa, Elmer Gabriel’s coffee plants ought to be leafed-out and gleaming. It is a week before Christmas, the heart of the coffee-harvesting season, and if his bushes were healthy, they would look like holiday trees hung with ornaments, studded with bright-red coffee cherries. But in a long row that stretches down the side of his steeply sloped field, the plants are twiggy and withered. Most of their leaves are gone, and the ones that remain are drab olive and curling at the edges. There are yellow spots, brown in the center, on the leaves’ upper surfaces. On the underside they are pebbly, and coated with a fine orange dust. Continue reading

Gastropod Defense Team? Not so fast…

Visitors to this site know that coffee plays a significant role in the lives of many of our contributors, so the threat of rust is something we’ve been aware of for some time as well. We’re usually in favor of finding natural and non-invasive solutions to pest problems, but are quite aware that “non-invasive” must be the operative word.

The unintended consequences of using the invasive Asian tramp snail as a biological control could be significant, causing more harm than help. The studies here suggest that selective planting amid the coffee could provide various solutions, which consider the benefits of the polyculture planting methods of shade-grown coffee.

What Tiny Snail Poop Could Mean For Latin America’s Coffee Farms

Zachary Hajian-Forooshani never expected to find snails in the mountainous, coffee-producing heart of Puerto Rico. In 2016, when he was a University of Michigan masters student, he and his peers noticed some curious excrement on the undersides of coffee plants, which they eventually traced to the invasive Asian tramp snail. “Cool things pop out and you follow up with them,” says Hajian-Forooshani, who has made the snails and their colorful poop the subject of his doctoral research. “I just followed a trail of excrement.”

The oddly colored snail poop was, not coincidentally, the same bright-orange color as coffee rust, a parasitic fungus that’s coming for your morning buzz.

Central American farmers have tried breeding hybrid coffee species that are rust-resilient, but the fast-moving fungus is quick to develop an immunity to that resistance. ADAM KEOUGH/PUBLIC DOMAIN MARK 1.0

Coffee leaf rust has been a menace for more than a century. After appearing on Sri Lanka in the late 1800s, it enveloped the island within 20 years, ridding what was once the world’s greatest coffee exporter of its cash crop in near entirety. Traveling on the wind across Africa’s coffee belt, coffee rust reached the Atlantic coast by the 1950s. Its arrival in Brazil in 1970 sowed panic in a heavily coffee-reliant economy, and within 12 years, no coffee-producing region in Latin America, where seven-eighths of the world’s joe is produced, was rust-free. Today, 70 percent of Central American farms are infected, costing the region $3.2 billion in damage and lost income. Continue reading

From Gardens Long Gone, Now Revived

These dates sprouted from 2,000-year-old seeds retrieved from archaeological sites in the Judean wilderness. Dan Balilty for The New York Times

While we are on the topic of gardens, let’s continue on a roll:

Aided by Modern Ingenuity, a Taste of Ancient Judean Dates

The harvest of the much-extolled but long-lost Judean dates was something of a scientific miracle. The fruit sprouted from seeds 2,000 years old.

The proud father Methuselah, grown from ancient seeds, at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava desert, Israel. Dan Balilty for The New York Times

KETURA, Israel — The plump, golden-brown dates hanging in a bunch just above the sandy soil were finally ready to pick.

They had been slowly ripening in the desert heat for months. But the young tree on which they grew had a much more ancient history — sprouting from a 2,000-year-old seed retrieved from an archaeological site in the Judean wilderness. Continue reading

Puzzling Palm Positivity

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I saw this photo while skimming the headlines in the Environmental News section of the Guardian’s website. I have been skimming that section most mornings since July, 2011. Out of 3,000+ times skimming and always finding at least one news story to click through to read, today was the first time I ever clicked on an image that I could see was part of a paid advertisement. I landed on a screen filled with this:

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I have replicated as best I can what I saw, including the links to the messages embedded behind each of the images. The images of palm plantations are so pretty. The messages are so positive.

I am puzzled.

Palm?

Positive?

Regenerating, Banana & Plantain

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Following yesterday’s theme, but switching to another example, today I will say a few words more about the pitch. The last time I spent time thinking about bananas as much as I am now, it was in the context of creating an edible landscape. Amie and other team members wrote plenty on this topic when we were based in Kerala.

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Now that I am prepping for regeneration I am watching these banana and plantain plantings grow day to day, week to week as I remove the grasses surrounding them. Continue reading

Regenerating, Early Steps

Ornamentals

In the early stages of regenerating this erstwhile coffee farm, moving decades-old ornamentals to the periphery has been an important activity. But some ornamentals stay put. The purple flowers center-left in the image above are a favorite of both hummingbirds and butterflies, so that bush, planted only one year ago, was a no-go. And behind it, a bougainvillea that was planted in 2001 remains because it has become a favorite place for hens to bring their chicks to hide under the foliage from a grey hawk that has taken up residence above in the poro trees.

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In this image above, in the background is a sibling of the bougainvillea planted in 2001, and this one was already closer to the periphery so did not need moving. But in the foreground is an example of another ornamental that has a completely different purpose. It is, frankly, an ugly ornamental as these things go. It does not produce flowers, instead putting its energy and other resources underground to create a strong, deep root system. It is planted for soil retention. And this stalk was cut from a mature version of the same, as seen below. Continue reading

Curvy Berms, Seedlings & Fertile Earth

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Curvy berm

What looks like an elongated haystack curving downslope in this photo we call a berm. No hay there, just a mix of cut grass covering branches, logs, and such. The purpose of a berm, diagonally traversing this hill, is explained better by others. When we prune trees and bushes, cut grass, and find old logs on the land their biomass help build this berm. Recently we trimmed all our vetiver grass, a soil retention ally that grows waist-high in rows throughout our hills. We cut it back twice a year, and added it to the  top of the curvy berm.

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Poro seedlings

To the left of that berm are re-plantings of a type of palm that we had growing on the property already, which birds love for the orange fruit it provides and for nesting. Those 20 palms join the 30 banana and plantain trees on the flat area below, and the dozen or so citrus trees recently planted. The shade-providing and nitrogen-fixing tree called poro will be planted during the next waning moon cycle.

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Poro trees, parents of the seedlings, with vetiver grass downslope

We have collected hundreds of seedlings from the poro trees originally planted when this land was part of a coffee farm.

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This rainbow reminded me to document the work on the land where the bees are, and where the coffee will be. For now, just a quick note. On the lower left of the photo above you can see where I have been using a pickax to loosen soil, dark and rich and teeming with earthworms, for planting in between the rows of bananas. I last cleared this space before we moved to Croatia in 2006. The grasses and vines that occupied this space for the intervening years until recent months, now our enemy for growing plants we favor, have performed an amazing ecosystem service. The earthworms and smell of the soil tell me that.

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End of day, sunset time, back on the terrace of our home, an unexpected spectacle. In the photo below, which is looking due east, the sun is coming from the west, hitting Irazu volcano and lighting it up in such a way that it almost looks like golden lava is flowing down its cone. I’ll take that view, with thanks to whatever caused it.

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Sunset-illuminated Irazu volcano in the distance

Scaling The Urban Farm, In Paris

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Nature Urbaine. Photograph: Magali Delporte/The Guardian

The future of food: inside the world’s largest urban farm – built on a rooftop

In Paris, urban farmers are trying a soil-free approach to agriculture that uses less space and fewer resources. Could it help cities face the threats to our food supplies?

Thanks to the Guardian for keeping stories like this  coming:

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Urban farming on a Parisian rooftop. Photograph: Stéphane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

On top of a striking new exhibition hall in the southern 15th arrondissement of Paris, the world’s largest urban rooftop farm has started to bear fruit. Strawberries, to be precise: small, intensely flavoured and resplendently red.

They sprout abundantly from cream-coloured plastic columns. Pluck one out to peer inside and you see the columns are completely hollow, the roots of dozens of strawberry plants dangling into thin air.

From identical vertical columns nearby burst row upon row of lettuces; near those are aromatic basil, sage and peppermint. Opposite, in narrow, horizontal trays packed not with soil but coco coir (coconut fibre), grow heirloom and cherry tomatoes, shiny aubergines and brightly coloured chards. Continue reading